Nobody takes the brunt of trade deadline season like the fungible minor-leaguer.
As of the moment I’m writing this article, the hot stove is still largely simmering. Outside of the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman—which, let’s be clear, is fraught and distressing and weird and better handled by a bunch of women online than by me—the trade deadline has approached with more anticipation than action. Yes, Melvin Upton went to the Jays, and yes, we’ve seen the annual Struggling Reliever Swap happen as Drew Storen and Joaquin Benoit switched places, but so far none of the prospects that we cherish—pace, Gleyber Torres—have moved away, and most of the stars remain in place. And so we’re set to receive approximately 8,000 articles debating the relative merits of trading or keeping prospects, about the nature of team development, and about whether veteran rentals are overrated or not.
Thankfully, this is not one of those articles, though I’m sure that if you find any of those debates that break new ground, they’ll be here at Baseball Prospectus. What I’m mostly interested in here is breaking down what makes prospects such valuable chips, why elite prospects and non-elite prospects alike are treated like poker chips at this time of year. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for why prospects are treated as fungible value: 1) They are largely forgotten by the players’ union; 2) They are out of sight and out of mind for a major-league club; and 3) They have no real say in where or when they are employed. All of these factors combine to make minor leaguers what Karl Marx might call the surplus labor army of Major League Baseball, the collection of underpaid, talented workers that help maintain management’s profitability. So, yes, before you ask, this is a bit of a polemic.
The polemic quality of this article was probably predicted by the first point in my list above, the critique of the Players Association. I actually think that the MLBPA is one of, if not the best player unions in the big four sports, if only for two provisos that make baseball its own unique animal when it comes to player salaries: the lack of a salary cap and guaranteed contracts. That’s huge, and only the NHL really comes close to getting as good a deal for its players. But the dark secret of the MLBPA is that it is a veterans-first organization. Minor leaguers have long lobbied for better working conditions and more competitive salaries, and in response MLB has scuttled their class action lawsuits and defined them as seasonal interns as opposed to employees (largely in contradiction to their own press on MiLB websites, but that’s another issue). And the union has stayed silent. The union that has successfully defended 5-and-10 rights, that has embedded the DH so fully as to be all-but-eventually translated to the NL, and the union that has spit in the face of reports of reduced team profit has refused to speak up for its most roundly trampled members. And, so, minor leaguers are paid relatively nothing past their bonuses, and are set to make relatively nothing for their first six minor-league years.
And let’s be clear, major-league baseball teams can afford to pay their high priced vets and their minor leaguers fairly; I find claims to the contrary laughable. But minor leaguers are just not considered a priority for the union, and, fittingly perhaps, they are not considered a priority for the big-league club either. Recall the then-panned James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi trade: the veterans in the Royals clubhouse didn’t know Wil Myers from Adam, and they knew James Shields was an (at that time) ace. Maybe Eric Hosmer or some of the very young players who remembered him from the minors shed a tear for their friend leaving, but by and large, any major-league clubhouse will trade any number of minor leaguers for a shot at a pennant or a World Series. The larger issues of abuse aside, I expect that no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse is mourning even the deeply talented Gleyber Torres now that they have a stronger bullpen. And this is natural, of course—minor leaguers are developing while you’re playing a game a day and trying desperately to keep up with the grind of the season. You’re of course not going to relate easily with them.
This leads to the third point, that both the union’s disinterest in and the players’ distance from minor-leaguers plays to management in general, and ownership in particular. Because for the team itself, minor leaguers represent a unique win-win scenario: keep them, and you have cheap talent even if they just fill a spot on your bench or even if they fill a spot on your Triple-A team; trade them and you can add to a playoff run without really losing anything that will impact you until a year or more down the pike. And no minor-league player has the ability to say no to a trade; you won’t hear about Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias holding up trade talks because they need to be convinced to drop their no-trade clause. And even if a prospect is traded into a worse situation—a hitter traded to San Diego, or a pitcher traded to Colorado—they simply have to suck it up and try to succeed in a worse spot. Prospects are truly fungible, from a financial standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.
Ownership depends on this flexibility of labor to maintain its profit margins. While I still maintain that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve and still pull a profit, it’s undeniable that whatever profit they would pull would be less than it is now. And as MLB is run to be profitable first and foremost—though the exceptions to that would make for an interesting article themselves—there’s no real incentive for ownership to make things more comfortable for minor leaguers. Even management has little incentive, as flexibility in the labor pool allows them to make moves to win now and win later. And even major-league players are conditioned into thinking of the minor-league group of players as other than them, non-veterans, or even as unwanted competition. And so minor leaguers remain as the remainder in the system that helps grease the wheels of MLB; spare a thought for them this trade deadline. As fans, we probably owe them that much at least.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Jorge Alfaro, Anthony Alford, Francis Martes, and Jake Woodford.
Prospect of the Day:Jorge Alfaro, C, Philadelphia Phillies (Double-A Reading): 4-for-5, 3 RBI
I included the RBI because it’s just weird to have the prospect of the day without any other stats, but the fact that Alfaro didn’t have any doubles or homers is kinda the point. This was once a player who was all-power, no-hit-tool, and he has hit .287 in Double-A while still showing the plus power. Is he going to hit for that high of average at the big-league level? Probably not, but he no longer has to hit for power to become a regular; the defense and hit tool have reached a level where above-average power will suffice. I’d bet on it at this point.
Others of Note
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Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Ranger Suarez, Conner Greene, Ian Happ, and Scott Schebler.
Prospect of the Day: Ranger Suarez, LHP, Phillies (Short-Season Williamsport): 7 IP, 0 H, 0 R/ER, BB, 5 K
After two years in the now-defunct Venezuelan Summer League, followed by a dominating showing with a 0.65 ERA in 15 appearances in the GCL in 2015, Suarez has continued pitching well as a 20-year old in the NYPL. A quick-armed lefty with an average fastball, two secondary pitches with potential, and a strong command profile, Suarez fired this seven-inning no-hitter while flashing all of these traits. Most scouts view Suarez as a potential back-end starter or lefty reliever down the line.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Peter Lambert, Anthony Garcia, Austin Gomber, and Travis Blankenhorn.
Prospect of the Day: Peter Lambert, RHP, Colorado Rockies (Low-A Asheville): 6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K.
Lambert’s ERA by month: 3.20, 2.05, 1.96, 12.18. One of these things is not like the other; one of these things is July. Much of that damage was done in a start where he gave up 10 runs and didn’t make it out of the second inning, which always puts a damper on the ERA. My point is, Lambert has been great for most of the year, and his overall ERA of 4.43 doesn’t come close to telling the story of how impressive he’s been for the bulk of 2016. It’s a good stat, but it’s a flawed one. Lambert is one of the best pitching prospects in a loaded Colorado system.
Notes on prospects who stood out over the weekend, including Isan Diaz, Josh Staumont, Patrick Weigel, and Aristides Aquino.
Prospect of the Weekend:Isan Diaz, IF, Milwaukee Brewers (Single-A Wisconsin): 3-for-4, 2 R, 3B, 2 HR, BB, K
We generally try to spread out the prospect of the day/weekend, but I’m pretty sure this is the second or third time Diaz has won it, and for good reason. He’s torn the cover off the baseball for the month of July, hitting .333/.417/.726 with seven homers. That’s good. Whether it’s at shortstop, second base, or whatever position he plays, Diaz can be a regular there. The offensive upside is that high.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Chih-Wei Hu, Jordan Patterson, Jeff Brigham, and Hoy Jun Park.
Prospect of the Day: Chih-Wei Hu, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays (Double-A Montgomery): 7 IP, 2 H, B, 6 K.
Hu was one of the most impressive arms I saw climb the hill at the Futures Game, sitting mid-90s (touching 97) and complimenting it with a devastating palm ball that moved like a splitter with fade at 89-90. There’s some deception to his release, which helps the fastball play up despite a fairly straight path, and it makes the slide-piece tougher to pick up as well. He’s still learning how to sequence and miss bats consistently, but the stuff is there for a quality no. 4 starter, and he’s got a frame you can hang all of the innings on.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Yadier Alvarez, Engelb Vielma, Austin Gomber, and Christin Stewart.
Prospect of the Day: Yadier Alvarez, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers (Single-A Great Lakes): 5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K.
Alvarez showed he was way too advanced to be facing AZL pitching and earned a promotion to the Midwest League. He’s probably too advanced to be here, too. Alvarez has an easy 80 fastball that will touch triple-digits with life, and he’s showing a plus slider at times to give hitters from both sides of the plate fits. The command still has a long way to go and there’s some effort here that may make him a reliever long term, but outside of Julio Urias, he has the highest upside of any arm in the Dodgers system.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Anthony Alford, Gleyber Torres, Amir Garrett, and Chris Paddack.
Prospect of the Day: Anthony Alford, OF, Toronto Blue Jays (High-A Dunedin): 2-for-6, R, 2 BB, K, 3 SB.
This has been a disappointing season for Alford, without question, but it’s games like this that remind you just how talented he is. Keep in mind that not only is he only 21 years old, but he also had his development in baseball delayed by that egg-shaped sport. He’s still a tremendous athlete who has shown he has a game plan at the plate, and he’s going to be a big-leaguer because of his speed and ability to go get it in center field. It’s not a fast-track profile, but if you’re patient, this could be a leadoff hitter someday.
This dimunitive righty is ready to dish out some heat in the nation's capital.
The Situation: Sammy Solis is headed to the disabled list, and despite the Nationals having A.J. Cole and Austin Voth waiting in the wings in Syracuse, the Nationals will call on Lopez to make his big-league debut against the Dodgers on Tuesday.
Background: Lopez was given a (relatively) paltry $17,000 to sign out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, and after entering the Washington organization, he was far from a household name, starting his pro career off with two pedestrian minor-league seasons. Than 2014 happened. He came out popping near-triple digits on the radar gun, posted a 1.08 ERA in stops at Auburn and Hagerstown, and quickly established himself as one of the most intriguing right-handed arms in the lower level. He was solid—if not spectacular in 2015—but the big step forward was this season. He struck out 100 hitters in just over 76 innings with a 3.18 ERA, and after two solid starts in the International League, the Nationals felt confident enough to give him a shot against big-league hitters. —Christopher Crawford